Part 5: Don’t Cry for me Andrew Creamer
So, it turns out Evita is kind of a big deal over here (despite her Mussolini-sympathising husband). Her real name, Eva, was tweaked to show endearment, as adding ‘-ita’ to anything female or ‘-ito’ to anything male makes it into a cuter (or smaller), well-liked and more familiar form (like in ‘señorita’ for ‘little lady’ or ‘Miss’). Evita has a street named after her in almost every town of Argentina and her face graces pretty much all of Buenos Aires’ newspaper stands, as well as the 100 peso note (check for texture on her pony tail- if lacking it could be a fake!). There are also 2 giant images of her face adorning the prime location of the top floors of arguably B.A’s most prominent building- a government building in the centre of Avenida 9 de Julio (the main traffic artery of the city). This is the spot where she announced that she was stepping down from her vice presidency campaign (in 1951) when she was diagnosed with cancer, which she died from, age 33, the following year. On one side of the building, towards the traditionally poorer South she is smiling and towards the traditionally richer North she is shouting.
Happy Evita, Angry Evita…
Andy and I watched the film ‘Evita’ whilst here and enjoyed the music, though couldn’t quite match the controversy surrounding her (portrayed by Andrew Lloyd Webber) to B.A’s ubiquitous affection for her.
Alas I cannot divulge more Eva Peron info here, since we didn’t visit her museum (or any other B.A museums for that matter!). I could just regale the entire film- but you could also just watch it- there’s at least 2 good songs in it.
We were grossly uncultured individuals by day- we merely ate Macdonalds and wandered around on our first 2 days in the city. This wandering was actually more risque than expected, for reasons unexpected. I’d imagine that most people would predict that excessive traffic and potential pick pockets would be the biggest concerns to any B.A pedestrian. Neither. The commonplace hazards were much less major and less immediately obvious. It’s the very ground on which you walk that caused issue for me. Looking floorward as you step out in the city leads to 2 observations:
1. There is dog SH*T. Everywhere. To the point where wearing flip flops is akin to traversing an inexplosive but massively unpleasant mine-field.
2. The pavement is made of fairly small tiles (once fairly attractive, I’m sure), but over the years of the city’s 3 million inhabitants stomping all over them each is like a miniature tectonic plate, sometimes forcing its neighbour up, sometimes squashed under a few surrounding squares but causing them to be pushed up, sometimes disappearing into a sink hole at least 5 inches deep! I really do sound like a grumpy old me, but the number of stubbed toes and stumbles I suffered in a few days (OK I am fairly clumsy), far surpasses the number I’ve had on the trip before or since. I’m sure the locals are well used to it, but it’s terrible for us teetering tourists.
One does not want to contemplate what devastation would ensue if 1. and 2. combined and conspired against you to ruin your day.
To further our lack of visiting places of interest, we spent two further afternoons withdrawing Argentine Pesos (I assure you it’s less dull and more time-consuming than it sounds!)
In Argentina there is something called the ‘blue market’ exchange rate: this was source of much interest and infuriation for one Andrew Creamer. Essentially this is a black market exchange rate, but perhaps it sounded less illegal/ more patriotic under this pseudonym.
Due to a lack of confidence in the strength of the Argentine peso it is possible to change US Dollars for Argentine Pesos (the official abbreviation for which is ‘ARS’) on the street. Not ‘the street’ in general; ‘Florida Street’ is the place to be; not a dark and sinister alley, nor a quiet suburban spot- this is probably B.A’s main pedestrianised shopping street. All this is done in front of on-the-beat policemen who don’t even bat an eyelid at tourists being swept into ‘dodgy’ doorways and emerging with wads of local currency. The police don’t even ask the blokes yelling “Cambio!” (Change!) to move on… in fairness to the police, they’d have quite a job on their hands as there must be around 150 of them along the 300m-ish stretch of high street.
This goes on year-round but luckily for us (and unluckily for Argentina) the confidence, and thus value, was extremely low when we visited and if we changed our money in the bank we’d have received 8 ARSs for 1USD. But, theoretically, if we found just the right guy on Florida Street, we’d get 12ARSs per dollar. Hello happy Yorkshire chromosome! (Stuff it if it’s illegal).
The only issue is it’s really quite addictive haggling with each Cambio man (or woman) before moving on to the next and claiming that the last guy offered half an ARS more than him per dollar. This would often be followed by him calling us crazy, then us walking away, then (occasionally) him calling after us with a better offer. 95% of the time we’d say “Quizas volvemos” (maybe we’ll be back)– only twice did we actually return to seal the deal….. Before you know it half a day has passed!
On our way across from Chile we’d heard rumours of 13-13.5 ARS per dollar exchange rates and perhaps had set our sights too high. Only one week after the ARS dive the USD value started to depreciate too so for our first exchange we’d hoped for 12 and managed to get 11.6 from a very ‘honest’ and nice cambio guy (who proceeded to explain to us the three things to check for forged notes). Two days later we’d dipped to 11.4- which we got from what seemed to be an organised crime unit. The first exchange was done in a dingy apartment block hallway and we were assured by the chap’s friendly manner that we weren’t being swindled (he also told us he’d be there the following day should we require his services, unfortunately we couldn’t find him again). For the second exchange we were led into a dated but stylish block of flats (think dilapidated Great Gatsby), took 2 flights of stairs up (dark and jazzy patterned carpet underfoot, mirrors on every inch of wall) before being led into a starkly white room with a huge panel of glass containing 3 serving windows (not unlike what you’d see in a small bank branch back home). Milling about behind this imposing window-wall were at least 8 people, some armed, and in front of the glass were 3 other sets of customers checking and re-checking their notes. One couple found a fake note in their cash wad while we were there but, as the business doesn’t want to be seen to be doing ‘bad business’, the cambio guys do exchange it there and then, providing you haven’t walked away and returned.
In our experience before and since this street money exchange ‘system’ is unique in South America. It definitely kept one Creamer brain fully occupied for at least 24 hours and turned changing money into somewhat of a game. The only similar thing we’ve heard of was from an American we’d met who’d been to Venezuela (where the official exchange rate is around 9 Venezuelan Bolivars for 1 USD but he was getting 90 for 1 USD). Puts Argentina’s financial issues into perspective, but still it’s a tough time for them at the moment.
Eventide is when we really relished our surroundings- having three nights out in a row.
Every Monday there’s an awesome drumming night called ‘La Bomba de Tiempo’ in an old funkily-refurbished warehouse venue. The night sometimes spills out onto the street afterwards, unfortunately this time around we weren’t so lucky. However, beers came as litres and cocktails as pints. There was much merriment!
Bomba de Tiempo on stage
We also splashed out on a tango show/ class/ meal with a great gang from the hostel (America del Sur- not at all quirky or characterful- but it’s a modern custom built hostel with awesome facilities and staff… think: ‘if Carlsberg did hostels’).
The order of proceedings at the tango night varied for different audience members- some started with the class (pre-booze), while we were left to consume unlimited table wine and have our starter before being beckoned into the classroom. Can’t say I remember many of the steps- something like don’t let your feet leave contact with the floor (a risky business in B.A’s streets as previously mentioned) and tracing a rectangle shape in 6 steps. I do remember Andrew excelling at the ‘tango face’ and little else.
Andy lurking near the back of the boys group
After class and during the rest of our meal we were dazzled by the tangle of limbs, speed of footwork and sheer artistry of the pros in the show.
Unfortunately there was some random selection of audience members to be dragged up on stage and it had to be me (and not Andy) that this happened to. I did my best to follow the feet of my partner for my 60 seconds on stage, under the watchful eye of drunk and unsupportive boyfriend and drunk and encouraging compadres. I finished on my most serious and vicious tango face finish (though possibly came off as more of a poor ‘blue-steel’), thankfully I don’t think this was caught on film.
It was a great night and taught us a bit more about dancing- almost exactly a year on from mine and Andy’s on-stage waltz, and that Andy’s ability to become infuriated with himself whilst learning any sequence of steps is still very impressive to behold. People with Tourette’s syndrome voice fewer profanities than dancing Andy.
Our final night in B.A was spent at an Argentinian show called ‘Fuerza Bruta’ (‘Brute Force’). Andy, Dennis (our friend from Dortmund) and I were late and rushed to Recoleta; entered a huge, dark, packed room and had to wait only 5 minutes for the epic opening of what can only be described as an indescribable show.
Andy had been to see the show once in New York and once in London and knew exactly what to expect, although he would not divulge any of this to Dennis and I (other than not to wear anything we’d mind getting wet… intriguing!). Beforehand I was sure from the title it was going to involve men performing a series of weird strength-involving stunts on stage and I was almost certainly going to be extracted from the audience (for the second time in B.A.) and bench-pressed in some demeaning way. How wrong I was! Having now seen the show I know that even if Andy had wanted to tell us more about the show it would have been virtually impossible.
The show is on in Camden quite often and is definitely weird enough to fit in with Camden’s strange ways. It’s a spectacle of weird cirque-du-soleil, mixed with interactive theatre, and some raving. It’s definitely worth seeing, though you are likely to leave feeling entertained, bemused, confused, exhilarated and damp (in equal measures).
(NO PHOTOS ALLOWED- AS IT SPOILS THE SURPRISE AND THE SHOW ASKS YOU NOT TO SHARE THEM).
As well as our colourful evenings out we couldn’t help but notice the splashes of colour around the city too.
The Ecological Reserve if a giant pocket of green adjacent to the gaping brown mouth of the Rio de la Plata is a great place to relax/ cycle. We saw our first hummingbird there, and some guinea pig-esque creatures as well as lots of lizards.
Hummingbird at B.A. Ecological Reserve
The ‘dirty salmon’ hue of the Rosada Palace is an interesting choice of tint for a country’s ‘first building’. It still manages to remain imposing despite its rosiness and is impressive to look up at the balcony from which Evita made another of her famous speeches… to quote the musical: “She didn’t say much, but she said it loud”.
Rosada Palace in Buenos Aires Main Square
The street art is often stunning and prolific enough to have a city tour dedicated to it, which we unfortunately missed out on but heard lots of good things about. Much of the best art lies around San Telmo, the area of our hostel and also where lots of the tango shows and street performances take place.
San Telmo Grafitti
Another spot, La Boca (literally ‘the Mouth’) has the appearance of a gritty toy town and is labelled as ‘muy peligroso’ (very dangerous) on tours and in guidebooks. We took a walking tour there and enjoyed the touristy bustle and the left over lego-esque appearance of the buildings (all coloured with paint remaining from painting the ships at the nearby port). There’s street performers all over La Boca, including a very convincing Maradonna lookalike, whom Andy and I avoided on principle.
Our shot of La Boca houses ^(and colour enhanced? from Google below)
Andy promptly bought a Boca Juniors football hat to claim fanhood of possible South America’s best known club side (not saying much). It is possible, though extremely difficult to actually get into a Boca game- partly because you technically need a club membership card (and hence an Argentinian ID card) and partly because the stadium is in a notoriously dangerous area (only a stones-throw from the touristy coloured building part). Dennis had managed to find a tour group going there the week before and the group had to bribe 6 different people on their way into the stands.
Unfortunately we left Buenos Aires not feeling like we’d quite done it justice or got particularly familiar with all its ins and outs (it is HUGE, so I’m not surprised). We had a great time and met some great people but definitely felt, on our boat over to Uruguay, that there was a lot more to experience in Argentina’s mysterious and hectic capital. Something to come back for!